The economy gained just 69,000 jobs in May, way down from economists’ expectations of 150,000 or more, ticking the unemployment rate up to 8.2 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Friday. Adding insult to injury, already sluggish jobs numbers from March and April were revised downward by 49,000. The year’s early gains are starting to look more like an outlier than a recovery building real momentum.
There’s no sugar-coating Friday’s report: It’s bad. That makes President Obama’s job that much harder as he tries to gain the upper hand against Mitt Romney on the economy.
“Today’s weak jobs report is devastating news for American workers and American families,” Mitt Romney said in a statement. “This week has seen a cascade of one bad piece of economic news after another. Slowing GDP growth, plunging consumer confidence, an increase in unemployment claims, and now another dismal jobs report all stand as a harsh indictment of the President’s handling of the economy. It is now clear to everyone that President Obama’s policies have failed to achieve their goals and that the Obama economy is crushing America’s middle class. The president’s re-election slogan may be ‘forward,’ but it seems like we’ve been moving backward. We can do so much better in America. That’s why I’m running for president.”
The White House pointed to an increase in labor participation as a bright spot, but officials urged Congress to respond with new measures to prevent public-sector job losses and investment in stimulative infrastructure projects.
“In the American Jobs Act and in the State of the Union Address, the president put forward a number of proposals to create jobs and strengthen the economy, including proposals that would put teachers back in the classroom and cops on the beat, and put our nation’s construction workers back on the job rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure,” Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said in a statement.
The numbers come as Obama and Romney are competing to sell their agendas as the fix for the nation’s job woes — and tear down the other guy’s qualifications.
In Obama’s case, he’s been on the road touting 27 months of private-sector job growth, pointing to successes like the auto rescue in Detroit and trying to remind Americans of the catastrophic 2008 financial collapse he inherited and the Republican administration that presided over it. On offense, his campaign embarked on a lengthy and often tumultuous effort to introduce general election voters to Romney’s history at Bain Capital, highlighting cases where companies taken over by the firm suffered through layoffs and bankruptcy while investors profited handsomely. More recently they’ve tried to undermine Romney through his jobs record as governor, with Obama’s top strategist David Axelrod in Boston Thursday to make the case that Romney sold the state’s voters the same bill of goods about being a “job creator” in 2002 only to see job growth at the 47th worst rate in the nation.
For Romney, who was thrown off message this week by supporter Donald Trump’s return to the birther cause, the jobs report is a welcome chance to highlight his own economic message. On Thursday, he held an oddly secretive press event outside of a Solyndra building in California, arguing that the solar company’s bankruptcy despite receiving federal loan guarantees was emblematic of the White House’s broader failure to jumpstart the economy with stimulus spending. His latest ad is a feel-good spot pledging that if elected, “President Romney’s leadership puts jobs first.”
Obama is buoyed by disproportionately stronger growth in key swing states, particularly Ohio and Virginia, but it’s an open question how much of a cushion that will give him if the national recovery continues to slow down. Economists fear that the worst may be yet to come: Europe is still dealing with a debt crisis and another collapse there could spill over into the American economy.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.